What is it like to “feel historical”? In Foundlings Christopher Nealon analyzes texts produced by American gay men and lesbians in the first half of the twentieth century—poems by Hart Crane, novels by Willa Cather, gay male physique magazines, and lesbian pulp fiction. Nealon brings these diverse works together by highlighting a coming-of-age narrative he calls “foundling”—a term for queer disaffiliation from and desire for family, nation, and history.
The young runaways in ...
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Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall

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What is it like to “feel historical”? In Foundlings Christopher Nealon analyzes texts produced by American gay men and lesbians in the first half of the twentieth century—poems by Hart Crane, novels by Willa Cather, gay male physique magazines, and lesbian pulp fiction. Nealon brings these diverse works together by highlighting a coming-of-age narrative he calls “foundling”—a term for queer disaffiliation from and desire for family, nation, and history.
The young runaways in Cather’s novels, the way critics conflated Crane’s homosexual body with his verse, the suggestive poses and utopian captions of muscle magazines, and Beebo Brinker, the aging butch heroine from Ann Bannon’s pulp novels—all embody for Nealon the uncertain space between two models of lesbian and gay sexuality. The “inversion” model dominant in the first half of the century held that homosexuals are souls of one gender trapped in the body of another, while the more contemporary “ethnic” model refers to the existence of a distinct and collective culture among gay men and lesbians. Nealon’s unique readings, however, reveal a constant movement between these two discursive poles, and not, as is widely theorized, a linear progress from one to the other.
This startlingly original study will interest those working on gay and lesbian studies, American literature and culture, and twentieth-century history.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Foundlings is a first-rate, innovative, and unprecedented work that will take the literary world by storm. Christopher Nealon proves himself here to be the very best of a new generation of queer theorists.”—Judith Butler

Foundlings provides a new paradigm for thinking historically and theoretically about the longing for history within gay and lesbian texts. This is not just a stunning addition to queer historiography but also a challenge to the historicist turn in literary and cultural criticism.”—Bill Brown, author of The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822380610
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 9/17/2001
  • Series: Series Q
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 875 KB

Meet the Author

Christopher Nealon is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Lesbian and gay historical emotion before Stonewall
By Christopher S. Nealon

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2697-3

Chapter One


The poems of Hart Crane seem like a good place to begin a book about lesbian and gay relationships to history, since Crane was punished early for failing to be "historical." The difficulty of Crane's poems, and their ecstatic lyricism, have produced a body of criticism preoccupied, whether in early dismissals of him or later valorizations, with his unassimilability to literary-historical narration. He is not, in the central accounts, a modernist, despite his chronological placement at the beginning of the twentieth century. His lyrics are famously "opposed" to the ironic, skeptical aesthetic of T. S. Eliot, and their stylistic signature has generally been classified as Elizabethan or metaphysical. This misfit placement in literary history has led to a critical subliming of Crane, a conflation of his person and his poems that are then jointly elevated to the status of aberrant example, hovering immediately outside of history. He is said to "give away the age," in Allen Tate's words, by virtue of embodying "the rootless spiritual life of our time" (121), or to be "the ultimate victim of history," according to Joseph Riddel, by refusing to acknowledge the compromises necessary for a lyric project to survive the modernist truth of pessimism (107). Yvor Winters, an early gatekeeper ofcritical opinion on Crane, seconds Tate's claim that Crane did not successfully confront the moral truths of the age-mostly meaning the prophecy of human folly visited on mankind in World War I-and describes Crane in a 1930 essay as "hysterical" in his attempt to write his long poem to Brooklyn Bridge, The Bridge, at a uniformly high pitch of emotional intensity. Winters, elaborating on this willfulness, calls Crane's poem "a public catastrophe," a fundamental misuse of the means of poetry, and suggests that Crane, by failing to write morally, is merely "a stylistic automaton," trying to stay afloat by sheer personal assertion (105, 107, 108). Hysteric, automaton, victim, hapless giver-away of the age: each characterization is an attempt to keep clean the tableau of literary history by placing the aberrant, immature writings of Crane on its very edge, right next to the void. Tate went so far as to refer to Crane's suicide as "morally appropriate" (Berthoff 58).

These criticisms, with their focus on developmental immaturity and communal disaster, are not hard to decode, in retrospect, as given shape by homophobia. Thomas Yingling, in his book-length study of Crane, makes clear that the poet faced throughout his career a brutal equation of his sexuality with his poetic style, writing as he was among rationalist colleagues for whom homosexuality was a dirty secret and a failure of self-discipline, barely to be tolerated. Crane's correspondence in particular offers a glimpse of the energy he was obliged to spend defending himself as worthy of poetry, despite being a gay man: "One doesn't have to look to homosexuals to find instances of missing sensibilities," he writes Winters in 1927, defending against the accusation that Leonardo da Vinci, and other "homosexuals," lacked the self-discipline to produce moral art-if in fact moral art is what modernity should desire (O My Land 338). Other letters make clear the connection between this accusation and others, more "literary," leveled at Crane for his style.

Gay male critics have tried to understand Crane in light of this problem, but there is another critical generation between Crane's contemporaries and the first wave of gay literary criticism. This middle generation of critics, not so invested in the fortunes of English literary modernism as their predecessors, are by and large more sympathetic to Crane's poetry and avoid the lacerating moral judgments that characterize the first round of commentary. What they share with the earlier critics, though, is that they still radicalize Crane-understanding him, if more kindly, as writing at the limits of history.

Allen Grossman's beautiful essay "Hart Crane and Poetry: A Consideration of Crane's Intense Poetics" is a good example of this radical interpretation. Describing Crane as absolutely "authentic" in his commitment to pursue the linguistic promise of poetry-the promise of pure communication among beings-Grossman distinguishes Crane sharply from the English literary moderns by arguing that Crane, unlike Yeats and Eliot, did not believe that poetic style should ironically reflect a notion of "historically irreversible decline." Instead, writes Grossman, "in the name of the poetics of the 'new' he undertook to write as his predecessor, ignoring the equally constraining and prudential history of styles, as if he had no body and no unexchangeable place in time" (232). Similarly, Donald Pease writes that Crane, in the dithyrambic flights of The Bridge, "revaluates proleptically even the most recent version of modernism," arguing that Crane literally "replaces the Freudian unconscious with what could be called a prophetic unconscious-what Ernst Bloch calls an unconscious of the future" (Yingling 214). In these more sympathetic readings Crane becomes a figure akin to Hegel's Antigone, visited on history, disrupting it ("ignoring" history, in a phrase that is the critical obverse of Winters's "public catastrophe"), and then exhausted and blown apart by it, but not within the compass of its narrative possibilities. Here, imprudent, un-Freudian, and disembodied, Crane's sexuality lurks in the formulations of what makes him so hard to assimilate to literary history-or, more precisely, to a literary understanding of history.

The gay male critics who have written on Crane more recently have not, in illuminating Crane's poems, called this radicalization into question. Indeed, on some occasions they have further specified it, as does Tim Dean when he writes that "Crane preferred poetry over the homosexual subculture of 1920s Greenwich Village because his lyric-rather than his notorious sexual-practices promised freedom from the disabling binary options of closet privacy" (106). Dean's argument depends on reading Crane's lyrics as the true location of his sexuality, sublime and ego-shattering, while dismissing his actual sexual practices (themselves subculturally specific, as in his preference for sex with sailors and for waterfront meeting-places) as merely "notorious"-a gesture that places Crane once again outside history, writing from a jouissance that can have no proper name.

Thomas Yingling's Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text, in contrast, offers help in understanding Crane as both ecstatic and historically located. Yingling explains Crane's penumbral status in the American literary canon by pointing out that Crane's poems, "somatic," ecstatic, and "experiential," did not meet the criteria of Eliot's influential practice of historical irony and critical disattachment-by pointing out, in other words, that Crane's poems could not be considered modernist. This maneuver, to repeat, tends to sublime Crane out of literary history, given the broad interpretive power of the Eliot-based definition of literary modernism. But Yingling, alert to the possibility that taking this position might be read as a literary-critical exceptionalism, asserts that if Crane's poems did not fit a definition of modernism, his sexuality certainly did.

It is important to note that homosexuality was constructed for Crane in such a way that its congruence with more bourgeois, affective modes of bonding was virtually impossible. For Crane, homosexuality initiated what [John] Rajchman calls the peculiar ethics of modernism (modernism defined as a "literature of 'sexuality' that is not love, happiness, or duty but trauma, otherness, and unspeakable truth"). (30)

In Crane's poems, as I show in a later discussion, homosexuality is a scene of both anguish and delight, of code and clarity; and Yingling, exposing the homophobia that produces this anguish, goes a long way toward making it possible to read the poems with an appreciation of the emotional-the "experiential," in his words-breadth they compass. Specifically, by focusing his readings of Crane's poems on rhetorical techniques such as catachresis and morphemic fluidity, Yingling helps us understand that the material experience of homosexuality is reproduced at every level in the poems' linguistic play as a particular and unavoidable gay textuality. This writing, which Lee Edelman calls "homographesis," struggles with the high modernist rhetoric of disembodied impartiality, and with the accusation of gay male narcissism, and it constructs, in response, novel (catachrestic, fluid) forms of identity and difference in the spaces of poems.

Yingling's readings also point the way to reading Crane's poems in the light of something like a foundling imagination. He does this, first, by contextualizing male homosexuality in twentieth-century U.S. culture as an islanded subculture: "The culture [gay men] discover or produce upon coming out-gay subculture-has no relevance to their natal culture; be that upper or lower class, of whatever ethnic extraction or blend" (34). Second, in a close reading of Crane's poem "Recitative," Yingling points out that the poem's difficult images of twisted mirrors and images cut into "Twin shadowed halves" register an attempt to rework a hostile, externally imposed discourse of homosexuality as narcissism-a discourse that depends on dividing genders into "same" and "different," and whose punishments closely correlate to the inversion model of homosexuality, which likewise depends on a notion of the absolute difference between the "opposite" sexes. By linking his sociological observation about gay male separation from home culture to a close reading that reflects Crane's struggle with the gendered question of narcissism (and, implicitly, inversion), Yingling produces the outlines of what I would call a reading of Crane's poem as foundling.

This reading is immensely helpful; but it preserves a distinction between history as framing circumstance and sexuality as framed experience that Crane's poems-like the writing I will consider in chapters 2-4-outmaneuver. While Dean exiles Crane's sex life from his sexuality in order to place his sexuality outside history, that is, Yingling insists on an absolute separation between gay subcultures and their surround, equates modernism with trauma, and makes Crane's sexuality a figure for that modernism. This reading, too, isolates Crane from historical narration: "the utopian in Crane signifies a desire to escape history" (42). But the sexuality we are now able to read in Crane's poems, thanks in part to Yingling, is the engine for a special kind of history writing. Crane is a writer whose sexuality is a major factor in motivating him to be neither elegiac (post-historical) nor "ecstatic" (extra-historical) but deeply engaged with the question of what history is, how it comes about.

Crane has been accused of believing in a mystical, cyclical idea of history, and this claim has fed on the homophobic accusation that his writing did not achieve a normative "maturity" that would have been marked by a graduation into linear time (Clark 61-63; Riddel 106). But, as Grossman remarks, Crane is no mystic; he is a realist, and the strain on the language of his poems is unimpeachable evidence of a struggle that only a realist could pursue. The question is, what was Crane struggling with? Yingling points to homophobia; but this is only part of the question. I think what Crane wanted was to come up with a better description of how history moves than our clumsy, genetic past-into-present storytelling allows for. As Jared Gardner points out, Crane's being gay meant that some of the basic narrative resources of history writing, especially national and family stories of filial inheritance, were unavailable to him; and his struggle to come up with a narrative of how time and change make history, without making recourse to heterosexual myths, obliges him to hunt in his poems for convincing historical narration in other registers (33). Gardner suggests that what Crane comes up with is a narcissistic myth of American history that begins with the poet himself; I suggest that he produces, instead, what Grossman would call a story of "the fate of structures"-stories, at once intimate and abstract, about the mechanics of change in the world: in soil, in air, in water, in the human body, and in its machines.

I am interested in how Crane's poems sound to us now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, because I think he is a genius at describing processes that live inside other processes. As we find ourselves, all of us, unable adequately to narrate the nature of the changes late modernity has brought, especially whether small-scale and large-scale changes can correlate to each other in any meaningful way, it is rewarding to read Crane and to discover relationships between the large and the small, or the past and the present, that do not fall into the received categories: parallel, repetition, dimunition, reversal. Crane's poems are too strange for that; they are more like what Deleuze and Guattari would call "desiring-machines," which invite us to envision other modes of relationship between ideas, more idiosyncratic ones, more drawn from the imaginary of physics, of all places-puncturation, swirling, solidification. These are the terms by which Crane tries not to write history exactly but to account for the perpetual origins of historical narrative, in which "history" is some potent relation between the large and the small, the apprehensible and the abstract in experience.

My first aim in this chapter, then, is to read of some of the notoriously "difficult" poems from Crane's first volume, White Buildings, with an eye to such dynamic model-making, so as to sketch out how the poems can be read a bit more simply than they have been read to date. I turn next to parts of Crane's long poem of American history, The Bridge, to illuminate the historiographical significance of such model-making: what do Crane's allegories of change tell us about the nation, the family, or modernity that more mythologically secure narratives of decline or rebirth, or pendulum swing, fail to tell us? Finally, I consider a posthumously published short poem of Crane's that links his model-making impulse to a specifically gay narrative-not to demonstrate that the story of "the fate of structures" is exclusively a gay story but to show that it is possible for a gay story to yield an invested historical (i.e., not mystical) argument: to show, indeed, that Crane is not "the ultimate victim of history" but a writer of histories whose critical edge has not worn dull.


Excerpted from Foundlings by Christopher S. Nealon Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
The Invert, the Foundling, and the "Member of the Tribe" 1
Chapter 1 Hart Crane's History 25
Chapter 2 Feeling and Affiliation in Willa Cather 61
Chapter 3 The Secret Public of Physique Culture 99
Chapter 4 The Ambivalence of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 141
Conclusion: Contexts and Afterlives 177
Notes 183
References 197
Index 207
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